Remembering the last time the WWE Championship was on the line in the Royal Rumble match
The Royal Rumble pay-per-view on 24 January in Orlando, Florida has been given a twist with the news that the WWE World Heavyweight Championship will be defended in the traditional 30-man Royal Rumble match. It’s a major development to say the least, as WWE’s experimentation with its January showpiece has been limited.
In 2011, the 40-man version of the Rumble made its first and, so far, only appearance. In 1993, the condition that the winner would receive a title shot at WrestleMania was introduced for the first time, and has remained a staple of the match ever since.
Clearly, the sanctity of the Royal Rumble has been respected by WWE, but it’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time the company’s top prize has been defended at the WWE’s third-oldest pay-per-view event.
A different time, a different place
It’s early 1992. The Indian cricket team are on a tour of Australia. Leeds United are just five months from claiming the last ever title of the old English First Division for themselves. Nirvana, courtesy their hit album ‘Nevermind’, have risen to the top of the charts after four months of threatening to, kicking Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ to the curb along the way.
And there are the WWE, gearing up to present the 1992 Royal Rumble from Albany, New York and promising to make it bigger and better than ever. The vacant WWE Championship was on the line, and four wrestlers were central to the main storyline.
The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan (who had won the previous two editions in 1990 and 1991), Ric Flair and Sid Justice (who had wrestled previously in WCW as Sid Vicious and who would, after this initial brief run with the WWE, later re-debut as Sycho Sid) all helped write the major title storylines for 1991-92.
The lead-up – controversy after controversy
The Undertaker had defeated Hulk Hogan for the championship at Survivor Series 1991. The relative newcomer from WCW Ric Flair had slipped a chair into the ring, and Undertaker won by pinfall after Tombstoning Hogan onto said chair. Done and dusted. Or so it seemed.
WWE President Jack Tunney instead ordered a rematch for the pay-per-view ‘This Tuesday in Texas’. Tunney would also be present at ringside so as to prevent the occurrence of any funny business.
Six days later, the scheduled rematch saw Hogan steal a win via a schoolboy roll-up after throwing ashes from the Deadman’s urn into his face. This would ordinarily have seen Hogan recapture the title, but interference from Ric Flair and a subsequent ringside scuffle that saw Tunney knocked out meant another controversial finish to the match.
The following weekend, Tunney voided Hogan’s title win and declared the championship to be up for grabs at the following month’s Royal Rumble.
The very nature of the prize on offer means neither any before nor any since have matched the 1992 Royal Rumble match for scale. As a result, the undercard for the event remains rather forgotten.
It was populated by a string of tag-team matches and also featured the late Roddy Piper defeating The Mountie (the short-lived singles gimmick of tag-team wrestler Jacques Rougeau who also later wrestled as part of The Quebecers) for his only Intercontinental Championship.
A star-studded line-up
In retrospect, there should have been much doubt about the winner of the Royal Rumble match. Many participants were high profile fan favourites and/or can boast Hall of Fame worthy careers (some actually are officially WWE Hall of Famers): The British Bulldog, Jake Roberts, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, The Undertaker and Randy Savage were just some of the thirty entrants in the match.
It was, however, not quite as uncertain as it first seemed. The title picture had been dominated by Hogan for the past eight years and his matches with The Undertaker were still fresh in viewers’ minds.
Sid Justice – tall, blond and muscular – was another who was soon catapulted into the main event of WrestleMania, albeit in a separate programme with Hogan rather than in the title picture. Shawn Michaels, only just beginning as a singles wrestler, and Bret Hart, absent from the event entirely, were yet to find stardom.
Bret Hart himself, in his 2007 autobiography ‘Hitman’, said that the dressing room at the time simply assumed Ric Flair was the one handpicked by Vince McMahon to be the company’s main man. Hart, though, personally felt awarding Flair the responsibility of the championship would only strengthen the credentials of the competitor WCW.
Flair, already a celebrated name in wrestling and at the time of the 1992 Royal Rumble still a month shy of his 43rd birthday, had been involved in a series of oppositions across the country with Hulk Hogan. In this time, Flair had paraded around with WCW’s physical championship belt (which he was never actually defeated for; he had been fired from WCW and the title was only vacated) and claimed he was the ‘real’ world champion (remember, the WWE Championship was still vacant at this time).
Out of the ‘big four’, only Justice had never held the championship before and had been appearing (and wrestling) on television under that moniker for less than half a year. Nevertheless, he had found plenty of momentum as a babyface and had returned from an injury in time for the Royal Rumble match.
The British Bulldog and Ted DiBiase opened the contest at numbers 1 and 2. “The Million Dollar Man” lasted barely 90 seconds before becoming the evening’s first departure, eliminated by the first entrant The British Bulldog, who also went on to dispose of Haku and Jerry Sags. Ric Flair entered the Rumble at #3 and as the match progressed, it became evident that he had been dealt a poor hand in comparison to the rest of the ‘big four’.
Flair soldiered on, and it was not until numbers 20 and 21 that The Undertaker and Randy Savage made their entrances. The latter lasted over 20 respectable minutes before becoming a victim of Flair and Sid Justice working together. The former was eliminated by Hogan, who had entered at a favourable position of #26.
Justice himself entered at #29 and was, arguably, the most involved of all wrestlers in the latter stages of the match: of the last 8 eliminations (counting joint ones) of the match, Justice was involved in 7 of them, including his own.
His performance was best reflected in a curious fan response. Down to a final four of Savage, Hogan and Flair besides himself, Justice first sent Savage packing before imposing similar treatment on Hogan. The character of Justice was about to turn heel soon, but once the arch-babyface Hogan was eliminated, the crowd cheered enthusiastically for Justice – a sign, perhaps, of the displeasure with Hogan’s exhausting character and of the converse with Justice’s.
Hogan did not leave after being eliminated, instead grabbing Justice’s arm and attempting to pull him over the ropes as well. From behind, Flair scooped up Justice’s legs and, after one false move, managed to turn him over completely and dump him out of the ring with both the big man’s feet hitting the floor.
To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man
Flair’s stupefied reaction told the whole story. Down at the announce table, the charismatic Bobby “The Brain” Heenan could barely contain his excitement for his friend and “client”, telling his co-commentator Gorilla Monsoon that “he knew he’d do it!”
At the end of it all, it really was one of the greatest tricks Ric Flair ever pulled – a marvellous example of wrestling, acting and psychology that proved he could perform in any kind of situation, no matter the time or place. Flair lasted over an hour (he is, as of the 2015 Royal Rumble, fifth on the list of wrestlers who have spent the most time in a Rumble match) and while he was no stranger to long matches, to stand out so pointedly as the top performer of thirty showed us another side to his already expansive game.
It may come as a surprise that Flair only eliminated five men himself, and looked like he might get eliminated on multiple occasions. He was a marked man from the off (as he was the ‘outsider’ from WCW) yet he lasted the longest of anyone in the match.
All of that - plus his disbelieving reaction when he actually won – was part of a great piece of acting by Flair, convincing everyone that he was in the fight of his life and had somehow overcome very long odds to become champion, even though, without the benefit of hindsight, he was among the most likely to win the Rumble.
It was a masterful display by a tremendous performer that is as much responsible for immortalising the appeal and the legend of the Royal Rumble as much as anything. The prize has never been bigger than in this Rumble, and it all adds to the appeal of Flair’s victory.